THE BLOG

Alawites Under Attack in Syria -- Is It the Tipping Point?

Kardaha is the home of the Assad clan, in the middle of the Alawite region in northwest Syria, a place which, like the region around it, enjoyed peace and tranquility amid the big storm engulfing the rest of Syria. Short time ago, a Grad missile fell in the town and rebel forces are reportedly on verge of penetrating the place. No need for a particularly creative imagination to understand the extent and ferocity of the massacre which may very well follow.

Sensitive people are not advised to watch the YouTube videos which will definitely swamp the net. In the meantime, there are reports about demonstrations in the town against the Assad clan, as people are bitter about what seems to be a major strategic blunder by the regime, which did not allocate enough forces for the task of defending the place.

Other unconfirmed reports seem to be even more interesting and somewhat surprising. According to them, Washington is putting pressure on the Free Syrian Army [FSA] to not enter the town. Apparently, the Saudis, who seem to be the financial and political backers of the rebels, were mobilized by the Americans to prevent the possible calamity in Kardaha. The reason is the fear that a bloodbath there will force Assad, in his moment of utmost despair, to unleash a chemical attack against Sunni targets all over Syria, and then all hell will break loose.

Well, is it the crunch? The tipping point in the bloody civil war? Some background is in place here. The press was full of reports about the changing fortunes of the Assad regime, as it managed, with massive external Sh'iite support, to achieve some local gains in the Qusayr-Homs area. It was a mistake to read too much into these achievements, for three main reasons: first, the Syrian army became so depleted due to massive Sunni defections and almost exclusive reliance on Alawite forces, so their dependence on external forces is crucial. The problem is that Hezbollah has a limited human reservoir.

Second, since the Syrian army is considered as an army of occupation by the local Sunni population, they have to remain in places taken by them in order to maintain their control, henceforth cannot allocate forces to other potential trouble-spots, as the army is simply too overstretched.

Third, the regime, contrary to expectations, did not evacuate Damascus and retreated to the Alawite region, believing that they could stay in the capital while the Alawite territory remains out of the fighting.

Add up to this a sense of hubris, due to the recent successes, disregard to the potential of the rebels and the influence of the new weapons supplied to them, and here is the inevitable outcome. Homs witnessed a huge explosion some days ago, which turned into a pile of rubble one of, perhaps, the largest caches of anti-tank and other missiles used by the army. Then came the masterstroke of the rebels, the surprising attack on the Alawite hinterland, the epicenter of the regime.

In a civil war like the one in Syria, symbols have a lot of impact on the warring sides. Let us remember the fallen Saddam statute in Baghdad, in April 2003. The first targets of the popular uprising in Dera'a where it all started in March 2011, were the Hafiz Assad statue, and the offices of the cell phone company owned by Rami Makhlouf, Bashar's cousin and the richest person in Syria... so, from that standpoint we can appreciate the possible psychological effect of a rebel take-over of Kardaha.

The Sunnis will rejoice, the Alawites will have to fight for survival. This blog kept emphasizing the sectarian nature of the conflict in Syria, and also related to the internal composition of the Alawite community. This community has thrown in its lot with the regime for a simple reason. It is "their" regime, and in a process of over four decades got its dividends back from a grateful regime. Those who remember Kardaha of the old days will hardly recognize the modern-day town, and the same goes to the rest of the Alawite region, once the most dilapidated, under-developed part of Syria.

Yet, the Alawite community has had to sacrifice a lot in the process, since the Syrian armed forces are heavily stuffed with Alawites, who have been the backbone of the regime and its mechanisms of coercion, the army as well as the huge security-intelligence apparatus. These organs suffered huge losses, and most are Alawites, not a light affair for a community numbering three million people. The deal was that the Alawite region would remain protected by the regime. It is not, and now Bashar Assad is confronted with a crucial decision to make.

Should he turn all that is left of his army and much-reduced air force to a desperate battle in his home ground? Should he sue for some kind of a political settlement, though from the position of weakness? I, for one, believe that he will opt for the first scenario, and then will have to decide about the use of chemicals. A bad set of choices, no doubt about that, but also the rebels and their external backers face their own dilemmas. Hence the reports about possible American pressures on the rebels assume so much significance.

The crunch? The tipping point? Maybe not yet, but by all accounts very close to.